Film Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane (USA, 2016)

Producer J.J Abrams is a big fan of mystery, so the frugal promotional campaign leading up to 10 Cloverfield Lane, a film that is conceptually linked to shaky-cam monster classic Cloverfield, really wasn’t all that surprising. A trailer was randomly sprung upon us featuring serial scene-stealer John Goodman getting smacked over the head with a bottle by a panicked Mary Elizabeth Winstead before she tries to escape what seems like – and is – a decked out underground bunker was the most salient sequence from the trailer, and it didn’t give much of anything away, contrasting it with the average 21st century film trailer, which is on average full of so much exposition that viewers often go into modern cinema with too much of an expectation, knowing most of the story already, which often lessens the impact of the more thrill-based features. The only expectation we had from 10 Cloverfield Lane was it’s impressive, small cast and crew, and the fact that it apparently moved in Cloverfield’s universe in some way.

Cloverfield was a big hit for Bad Robot, rightfully praised not just for the technical handling of the found-footage genre, but the confusion, fear, and terror captured so realistically from the time the monsters attacked to the credits. It was full of an overwhelming emotional response to an attack on such a massive scale. It was 9/11 with monsters. It bucked the idea that found-footage films shouldn’t have brains behind it, and remains a reference point for genre films in the 21st century. Those three main emotions – confusion, fear, and terror – are captured again here in 10 Cloverfield Lane, although transposed into a different context, tightly wound with a pressure-cooker narrative that’s paced almost perfectly to power the smack of the third, heart-pounding act.

First things first: the setting. This isn’t Manhattan with a bunch of rich-millennials running around in a panic; far from it in fact – the location is rural this time, about 40 miles from Lake Charles with almost nobody else in sight. It’s this location where Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) winds up after a rather frantic drive to put some emotional distance between herself and her partner Ben (played by an unseen Bradley Cooper) who won’t stop calling her. There are zero cars around Michelle whilst she is driving, which makes it even more suspicious when a pick-up crashes into her vehicle and sends it tumbling down a hill, springing a visceral crash scene that’s humorously split by the opening title cards.

A very frazzled Michelle wakes up in a Saw type situation, a bare dungeon-esque room with one of her legs chained to the wall and an IV drip in her arm. Almost immediately we begin to see Elizabeth Winstead’s value here, as she switches on her effective, terrified performance, the beginning of a fantastic on-screen presence that strengthens much of the two-hour feature.

From the second he walks into the room, Howard (Goodman) is an off-putting, forbidding character, frustratingly uncommunicative aside from his need to assure Michelle that she’s safe, she needs to eat, and that he saved her life. He’s possessive from the get-go and the way the script reveals that with subtle, nuanced dialogue speaks to the care that’s gone into this secretly-shot project.

The air outside is poisonous and the surface will remain inhospitable for an indefinite period of time – likely two years – so leaving is not an option. That’s as much as Howard offers to Michelle on their first brief discussion, his vagueness just as irritating as Michelle’s unrealistic lack of questions (like “why did you chain me up?”).

The first act is very much about piling on those questions and then extending them so that we actually want to know the answers. The layering is well done here, and authoritarian Howard keeps the loose political connection of the franchise alive with an oppressive dynamic between himself, Michelle, and Howard’s neighbour, a necessary third party named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), that’s almost emblematic of governmental bodies which erode privacy and justify it with a protective front. Michelle and Emmett are indebted to Howard, and boy does he know it.

Knowing that the two films are connected gives us context for certain things heard throughout the movie – a rumbling heard outside, for example – and is just one of the unsaid elements of the film that keep that nail-biting tension from fading, even when the dialogue awkwardly tries to throw in some light-humour to balance against the rather bleak ambiance. Director Dan Trachtenberg helps this by being a straight-shooter, knowing when to let things speak for themselves but still handling the one-location setting with adventure so as to keep things fresh, approaching the bunker with warmth and the outside with ominous, edge-of-your-seat mystery whenever we chance a glance out of the scarce widow here and there.

The film takes big steps at times, which aim to cast doubt on a final judgement of Howard’s character. Is he crazy? evil? paranoid? misunderstood? kind? heroic? Goodman’s expert performance – both verbal and physical – helps our deliberation see both the light and the dark in Howard, giving 2016 it’s very first Oscar-worthy turn. Played with such terrorising assurance with just enough vulnerability flecked across, Howard is both a saviour and a villain, his personality brought out more and more by an extremely clever script which even uses a game of word association to speak volumes about his character.

Tone is consistent throughout the film with subtle shades of sci-fi, horror, and thriller all balanced in equal measures, impressively worked into this claustrophobic space using just three characters (four if you count a brief scene of breathless desperation). Indeed, this is one of those rare sequels that scales back from it’s predecessor and manages to surpass it in quality and impact.

A few logical inconsistencies unfortunately make their way into the story, like certain things found in certain rooms that certain people couldn’t possibly have made their way into in the first place. However, a suspension of disbelief is always to be required for any of the aforementioned genres of sci-fi, horror, and thriller, so to be put-off by such stretches would be a disservice to cinema. If you go into this film willing to give yourself over to the story and see things through to the end (which shouldn’t be hard, it’s only two hours long) then it’s likely you’ll walk out more than willing to add your voice to the many who are already championing 10 Cloverfield Lane as one of the best movies so far this year. It’s thoughtful, intense, and consistently entertaining.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Duration: 120 minutes

10 Cloverfield Lane is screening in Australian cinemas now.